‘First Cow’ for best picture? A critic’s guide to the Oscars if movie theaters don’t reopen in 2020

John Magaro in "First Cow."
John Magaro in Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow.”
(Allyson Riggs / A24 Films)

A month and an eternity ago, when movie theaters were about to shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak, a few industry observers quipped that Elisabeth Moss was clearly now a shoo-in to win the Academy Award for lead actress.

It wasn’t an entirely facetious suggestion: Moss is unsurprisingly superb in “The Invisible Man,” an above-average studio genre film that, in a more straightforward year, might be a long shot for awards consideration.

But in a moviegoing season that was cut abruptly short in March, the joke goes, “The Invisible Man” is suddenly not a long shot but a potential frontrunner. Not just one of the year’s early critical and commercial standouts, it may also be one of the only ones.


That’s assuming two unfortunate outcomes: First, that movie theaters don’t reopen this year at all. Second, that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which requires features to play in theaters to qualify for Oscar consideration, wouldn’t adjust its rules, dates and deadlines accordingly. On this latter front, the academy is already showing flexibility: Its leaders have said they are “evaluating all aspects of this uncertain landscape and what changes may need to be made … because we have no idea what the next several months are going to look like right now.”

Or, to quote a memorable line from Oscar’s most recently anointed best picture, “Parasite”: “You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all.”

What will this year in film look like, with major studio titles pushed back to fall and winter release dates (for now), major festivals like Cannes eyeing postponement or cancellation, and innumerable independent films in even worse danger than usual of not finding their audiences?

I haven’t a clue, and I suspect that anyone who claims they do is being either naive or disingenuous. The old industry maxim beloved by the late screenwriter William Goldman — “Nobody knows anything” — has rarely seemed more apropos.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, federal guidelines will leave decisions about reopening businesses to the states. Cinema owners are hopeful they will be able to ramp up for at least part of the summer.

April 16, 2020

One thing I do know: You could, in theory, hold the Oscars (on Zoom) next month, restricting voters only to movies newly released in U.S. theaters in the first three months of 2020, and still emerge with a solid, even commendable, slate of nominees. The simple reason for this is that the Hollywood studios have never cornered the market on cinematic quality, and well before the awards-season grind kicks in, every month brings brilliant work from filmmakers who rarely land on the academy’s radar — and are no less deserving of attention for it.


Yes, you have to look harder for these movies, using a finer-toothed comb than you might in November or December. You have to put anti-genre snobbery aside and be comfortable with subtitles (horrors!) and actors with unfamiliar names and faces.

And that’s precisely the point: It takes discernment to find worthwhile achievements, to look beyond the scope of the obvious and the overhyped. And discernment too often goes missing when the industry’s annual gala-hopping, screener-cramming popularity contest gets underway.

I have my own means of combating the Hollywood bias that often sets in during those fall months. Every January, I start a fresh list of every good and great new movie I see, logging performances, screenplays and directorial achievements that I think may be worth remembering at year’s end. I do this not because I want to think about awards season year-round (quite the opposite) but because I don’t want anything to slip through the cracks when it finally arrives. And because it isn’t in the industry’s best interests — or, more important, the audience’s — to perpetuate the falsehood that great movies are released only four months out of the year.

So, let’s take a look at my 2020 list as it currently stands.

Note that while the New York/Vulture writer Nate Jones recently conducted his own thought experiment in this vein — a smart, amusingly exhaustive speculation on how the 2020-21 awards season would play out if no more theatrical releases were to emerge for the rest of the year — my version of this exercise has zero predictive value. It’s simply what I would personally single out in the top eight feature categories: best picture, directing, acting and writing. It is also my early memo to myself and others: No matter what the future holds, these films and performances will still be worth seeing and remembering.

One ground rule: I am excluding 2019 movies that were re-released earlier this year; including something as great as Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” might have made this game too easy.

Best Picture

Under the circumstances, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to cap this category at five, going back to decades of historic academy practice. But why impose limits when the year has already given us more than five terrific movies? In keeping with the academy’s preferred number of late, let’s go with eight.

"The Assistant" movie.
Julia Garner stars in “The Assistant,” directed by Kitty Green.
(Ty Johnson / Bleecker Street)

The Assistant,” Kitty Green’s riveting sidelong view of sexual abuse in the entertainment industry, is as essential a #MeToo movie as Leigh Whannell’s expertly crafted thriller The Invisible Man; in both movies, the bullying enemy is both unseen and inescapable.

"Beanpole" movie
Viktoria Miroshnichenko, left, and Vasilisa Perelygina in a scene from “Beanpole.”
(Liana Mukhamedzyanova / Kino Lorber )

Bacurau,” Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ rich, strange genre mash-up set in a futuristic Brazilian backwater, deservedly won a major prize at Cannes last year, as did Beanpole,” a shattering drama of postwar reckoning from the scarily gifted 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov.

Sidney Flanigan, right, stars with Talia Ryder in "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" directed by Eliza Hittman.
(Angal Field / Focus Features)

If forced to pick a winner at this point, I’d have a hard time choosing between two new American indie classics: First Cow,” Kelly Reichardt’s tale of two friends on a mission in 19th-century Oregon, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Eliza Hittman’s tale of two friends on a mission in contemporary Pennsylvania and New York.

"I Was at Home, But...
Maren Eggert, center, in “I Was at Home, But...”
(Cinema Guild)

And finally, two masterly meditations on grief from Europe: “I Was at Home, But … ,” from German director Angela Schanelec, and Vitalina Varela,” from Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa. More than a few academy members might turn them off after five minutes, but that’s no reason you should.


"First Cow" filmmaker Kelly Reichardt poses for a portrait on February 25, 2020, in New York City at the offices of A24.
“First Cow” filmmaker Kelly Reichardt poses for a portrait on February 25, 2020, in New York City at the offices of A24.
(Michael Nagle / For The Times)

The academy didn’t nominate any women for best director in its most recent edition, despite having no shortage of opportunities to do so. This year, even with a tight three-month window, it could make considerable amends by nominating an established American master like Kelly Reichardt (“First Cow”); an out-of-the-box talent like Angela Schanelec (“I Was at Home, But … ”), who hails from the rigorous Berlin School; and gifted up-and-comers like Kitty Green (“The Assistant”) and Eliza Hittman (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”).

Director Eliza Hittman on the set of her film "Never Rarely Sometimes Always."
(Angal Field / Focus Features)

That leaves one final slot, and while Kantemir Balagov (“Beanpole”) and Pedro Costa (“Vitalina Varela”) both beckon, I’d give that spot to Leigh Whannell for making the most of what could have been a routine Hollywood reboot in “The Invisible Man.” (Between Whannell and Green, it’s been quite a year for Australian talent already.)

Lead Actress

Sidney Flanigan in "Never Rarely Sometimes Always."
Sidney Flanigan in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.”
(Focus Features / Sundance Institute)

If there’s something all five of my choices here excel at it, it’s the ability to hold a close-up. That’s true of the remarkable newcomer Sidney Flanigan, whose every downward glance is a quiet revelation in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” as well as Julia Garner, an “Ozark” Emmy winner who gives an exquisite silent scream of a performance as the title character in “The Assistant.”

Viktoria Miroshnichenko in “Beanpole.”
(Liana Mukhamedzyanova / Kino Lorber )

And speaking of silent screams: The very first shot of “Beanpole” is a slow zoom-out from the face of Russian actress Viktoria Miroshnichenko, stunning as a woman who embodies the shellshock of a war-torn nation. Vitalina Varela won the actress prize at last year’s Locarno International Film Festival for enacting a version of her own life story in the aptly titled “Vitalina Varela”; her every close-up is a tour de force of expressive stillness.

In Pedro Costa's "Vitalina Varela," from left, Ventura and Vitalina Varela.
(Grasshopper Film)

And of course, Elisabeth Moss is as marvelous in “The Invisible Man” as she was in 2019’s “Her Smell” (a movie that also came out early in the year).

Elisabeth Moss in "The Invisible Man," written and directed by Leigh Whannell.
Elisabeth Moss in “The Invisible Man,” written and directed by Leigh Whannell.
(Universal Pictures)

That still barely scratches the surface of this astonishingly rich field. Eliminate these five and you’re still left with the ferocious action showcases of Betty Gilpin (“The Hunt”) and Blake Lively (“The Rhythm Section”); Miroshnichenko’s “Beanpole” costar, Vasilisa Perelygina; Maren Eggert’s ferocious depiction of grief in “I Was at Home, But … ”; and Lesley Manville’s affecting exploration of a woman’s battle with cancer in the British-Irish drama “Ordinary Love.”

Lead Actor

The Way Back
Ben Affleck stars in “The Way Back” seen here as a coach with, from left, Tyler O’Malley, Ben Irving, Herbert Morales, Roman Mathis, Charles Lott Jr., Mateo Ortiz, Affleck and Al Madrigal.
(Richard Foreman / Warner Bros.)

I recently caught up with Ben Affleck’s bruising turn as a high school basketball coach battling grief and alcoholism in “The Way Back” and have nothing to add to the general praise; it stands alongside his career-best performances in “Gone Girl” and “Hollywoodland.” He’s easily the biggest star name here, followed by Lakeith Stanfield, as effortlessly charming a romantic lead in “The Photograph” as you always suspected he’d be.

"The Photograph"
LaKeith Stanfield, left, stars with Issa Rae in “The Photograph,” written and directed by Stella Meghie.
(Universal Pictures)

John Magaro is wonderful in “First Cow” as an Oregon Trail chef trying to get by the only way he can (because bakers can’t be choosers). And finally, two terrific actors from overseas: Pierfrancesco Favino for his gripping performance as the Sicilian mobster turned whistleblower Tommaso Buscetta in “The Traitor,” and Levan Gelbakhiani, so winning as a Georgian dancer who falls hard for a member of his troupe in the gay romance “And Then We Danced.”

Pierfrancesco Favino, left, and Fabrizio Ferracane in the movie 'The Traitor'
Pierfrancesco Favino, left, and Fabrizio Ferracane in “The Traitor.”
(Lia Pasqualino / Sony Pictures Classics)

Right behind them all: Kris Hitchen, persuasively burning the candle at both ends in Ken Loach’s bleak drama “Sorry We Missed You,” and Garrett Hedlund, breathing unexpected fury and pathos into the cliché of the reformed Klansman in “Burden.”

Supporting Actress

Sonia Braga in Bacurau
Sônia Braga, center, in “Bacurau.”
(Kino Lorber)

All hail the Brazilian legend Sônia Braga and her fierce turn as a small town’s mean, boozy conscience in “Bacurau.” Andrea Riseborough, one of the medium’s great chameleons, brings her signature ferocity to bear on her role as a woman rejecting a community’s racism in “Burden,” while Talia Ryder, using just a few words and a lot of expressive silence, etches an indelible portrait of a friend indeed out of a few words and silent gestures in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.”

Mia Goth in director Autumn de Wilde's "Emma."
(Focus Features)

I was equally impressed with Mia Goth’s exquisite vulnerability and Miranda Hart’s delightful comic dithering in “Emma,” in which both actresses remind us that Jane Austen’s characters are at once familiar and inexhaustible.

Supporting Actor

Colin Farrell, left, and Charlie Hunnam in "The Gentlemen."
Colin Farrell, left, and Charlie Hunnam in “The Gentlemen.”
(Christopher Raphael / STX Films)

I didn’t much care for “The Gentlemen,” but I loved Colin Farrell’s performance (a shade more than Hugh Grant’s) as one of the many men caught up in Guy Ritchie’s warmed-over Cockney caper. I also loved Josh O’Connor’s hilarious work in “Emma” — he’s like Gumby in a priest’s collar — and Udo Kier doing what only Udo Kier can as a gunman with the small town of “Bacurau” in his sights.

Martin Lawrence, right, Will Smith
Martin Lawrence, right, and Will Smith in “Bad Boys for Life.”
(Ben Rothstein / Columbia Pictures)

As the wilier, more calculating of two friends seeking their fortune in the Old West, Orion Lee complements Magaro beautifully in “First Cow,” to the point where he almost qualifies as a lead. I suppose you could say the same thing of Martin Lawrence reprising a decades-old role in “Bad Boys for Life,” but the joy of his performance this time is that he fully embraces his second-banana role — and steals the movie.

Original Screenplay

The gonzo B-movie bravura of Mendonça Filho and Dornelles’ screenplay for “Bacurau” deserves recognition here, as does the spare, incisive, observational storytelling in Green’s “The Assistant” and Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” This would also be a welcome opportunity to salute the playful, inventive play with genres and languages in Corneliu Porumboiu’s heist thriller “The Whistlers,” as well as the hyper-eloquent, mile-a-minute dialogue of James Sweeney’s winsome romantic comedy “Straight Up.”

Adapted Screenplay

Mia Goth, left as Harriet Smith and Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse in “Emma,” adapted for the screen by Eleanor Catton.
(Focus Features)

Here’s where my experiment admittedly crashes to earth. The year has already given us three solid possibilities in Eleanor Catton’s sparkling adaptation of “Emma”; Kelly Reichardt and Jon Raymond’s “First Cow,” based on Raymond’s novel “The Half Life”; and Leigh Whannell’s extensive reimagining of “The Invisible Man” from H.G. Wells’ science-fiction classic. Not a bad start, but the pickings are otherwise slim. I’ll leave the other two slots blank for now, in symbolic recognition that — as much fun as it’s been to speculate about an alterna-Oscars — we can’t wait for theaters to reopen, and for the movies to return with a vengeance.